Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I saw The Princess And The Frog this weekend, loved it, and hope to write more about it soon. For now, what I want to say is how refreshing it was to see actual hand-drawn animation on the big screen, artwork that obviously came from a human hand.

If you're thinking, "Ah geez, he's going to go off on another anti-CGI screed," you're not wrong. But let me say, I have nothing against CGI, in theory or in use. I revere almost everything Pixar has ever produced. If I ever get around to compiling a Ten Best Films Of The Year list, rest assured Up will most certainly have a place there. (If I do a Best Of The Decade list--and I probably will-- it may turn up there as well, along with at least one other Pixar film which is a near lock for first place.)

The problem with so many computer animated films is that they are so visually dreary, so dedicated to reproducing reality (simulated sunlight, water and flesh, even digitally-created lens flares and shaky camera moves) that they forget that the key to great animation is often simplicity. Bill Tytla, perhaps the greatest animator who ever lived, could make audiences weep with nothing more than lines he'd scrawled on paper. Yes, those lines were transferred to celluloid, painted and laid over backgrounds--but the drawing remained Tytla's. Walt Disney had a huge effects animation department he'd deploy for all his features, which specialized in depicting sunlight and water and shadow, but he knew when not to deploy such effects, when to simply let Tytla or Frank Thomas or Ward Kimball strut their stuff.

As too many animated features try to simulate reality, live action features are becoming more and more cartoonish, as CGI is inexplicably rolled out to depict not only such pointless spectacle as giant fighting robots, but everyday occurrences like car wrecks and...well, almost everything. Filmmakers these days are wacky on the junk, breaking down the world to a series of 0s and 1s, rendering everything digitally simply because they can. So we have computer-rendered jets flying over character's heads as they talk, or protagonists wandering through digitally-created crowds, a series of pointless distractions that intrude on whatever reality is meant to be conjured.

And even when depicting the patently unreal, why does CGI have to be the go-to method? Part of my weekend was spent viewing my all-time favorite Christmas movie, Joe Dante's wonderful Gremlins, released in 1984, when computer effects were in their infancy. The title menaces were nothing more than elaborate puppets. But they were superbly designed (by Chris Walas) and properly threatening.

Consider this sequence:

First of all, there's no denying this scene works. It wouldn't have been improved with CGI. In fact, it probably would have lessened its impact. In a way, Dante had to work around the limits of the technology; the puppets could only move so far. But that pushed him to think on his feet, to come up with fresh, different camera angles that would hide the wires and technicians, to creatively edit around what he couldn't show.

The other thing about that sequence is that actress Frances Lee McCain clearly had something to react to. The gremlins were really there, live on set, but so was the green goo pouring out of the blender. And again, the fact that her movements were dictated by the puppeteers and effects guys on the set probably added to her discomfort, a discomfort that registers on screen as a reaction to the scaly invaders in her kitchen, a reaction that isn't possible when an actor is reacting to things that won't be added until post-production.

I had another point to make, but this is getting long, and you get the idea.